The secrets and lies of family life have been long been inspirational for writers; from Sophocles to The Simpsons, and part of the success of these tales is due to recognition. Everyone has aspects of their familial relationships which are never openly questioned or discussed, or if they are it is usually too late. Dilys Rose’s novel Pelmanism is about the Price family as seen through the eyes of daughter Gala, but particularly it concerns her elderly father, Miles, who, as the novel begins, she is preparing her self to face, possibly for the last time.
The title comes from a card game that Gala played with her Gran, each of them trying their damndest to lose to each other, but it is also the name of a memory-training system which was popular in the early part of the twentieth century, and it is memory that the novel is chiefly concerned with and which gives the book its structure. Gala remembers incidents with her father from her past, and the chapters move from memory to memory in a non-linear fashion, fragmented and incomplete.
At first I worried that the central characters were too one-dimensional; the overbearing father, the put upon wife/mum, the nourishing and supportive gran, and the daughter whose feelings for her father move from admiration, through disappointment, to outright contempt; but once you start to work through the multiple layers of Gala’s memories it becomes clear that these are the roles which all are assigned in this family unit, and they are created by events, emotions and feelings, and it is often easier to play your part rather than try and change the whole. Rose is not looking at who they are, but why.
The driving force of the family dynamic is Miles Price, and how his family have to adapt to accommodate his hopes and aspirations, for little, or no, thanks or reward. He is an all too realistic and recognisable creation; a man who has come to blame his family for his life not turning out how he envisaged it. His two major obsessions are Marlene Dietrich and himself, and Marlene comes a distant second. He is the patriarch, and wants everyone to know that, but his rule is one which is not to be questioned or contradicted, and Gala is faced with the choice to accept this, or move away.
As the memories are revealed Miles is seen as a man who will go to almost any lengths to allow his delusions to continue. His one-man show of his painting, ‘at the McLellan Galleries’, sees his behaviour reach new heights of insensitivity as shown by his ‘portrait’ of his daughter, and how he deals with the passing of Gala’s gran. You may think that this is a man who should be written off, but all of this is tempered by the knowledge that he is now old and ill, and also by the thought that memory can play tricks, which means that Gala’s testimony is perhaps not the most reliable.
I may be the perfect reader for Pelmanism as I am at the age where a lot of what unfolds is only too recognisable to me, both in the character of Gala, and the rest of the Price family, and I wonder if other readers will share this empathy as easily. But if they don’t yet, they will as the book is also about growing up and growing old. Family ties are ties that bind, but often they bind too tightly and are impossible to escape. Dilys Rose reminds us that, when it comes to family, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
*A longer version of this review appeared elsewhere, but it’s a secret…